Gas futures at the gas pump?

Commodities traders buy gasoline futures all the time. Could they work at the gas pump? Imagine a big gas chain willing to sell you future gas today. You would buy a coupon, good for 15 galons of gas in August, the month you plan a big family trip in the minivan. You're afraid the high prices in the future might hurt the trip, you can be protected against them. The futures might even cost less than gas at the pump today due to widespread belief that supplies will open up. In times of heavy fear they would cost less. You could even buy some of your gas years ahead (from a big chain you know will be around) and then sell them on eBay if you don't need them. Would you need a commodities licence to do so?

Would anybody buy them?

(Thanks to Kathryn for this idea.)

Trains that decouple and recouple

I've often wondered why, when you have an electric train line that has a terminus as the main destination, you can't give everybody an express train.

To do this, imagine for the commute home, a 5 car train starts downtown. It leaves and expresses a few stops down the line. (A local car leaves after to handle the stops close to downtown.) When it gets to point one, with sufficient warnings and many safeguards, it decouples, and the rear car brakes to stop at the first of its stations.

Passengers get off (and on as well, see below) and the car, which has its own power coupler, takes off to drop folks off at the next few stations. The main train releases another car after that which handles the next few stations.

This has been thought of before, but next the hard part, something needing more modern technology. After the drop-off car has completed its local run, it would attempt to rejoin the next express train, allowing local passengers who got on it to get on an express, then move to the car that will eventually decouple to go to their stop. With the right timing this could go on all day.

Not that this is easy...  read more »

Redeem transit tickets for Carpool lane permits

Carpool lanes exist to reward those who work to reduce congestion and pollution with a faster trip. I know that's good every time I look out my window and can't see the hills for the haze. Some areas allow zero-emission-vehicles (electric cars etc.) to also use carpool lanes with a solo driver, reducing pollution if not congestion.

Proposals have been made to also allow solo drivers of hybrid cars into the lanes, as well as solo drivers who simply pay a fat fee for a permit. Let me propose an interesting variant of these payment ideas.

Let people pay for part of their capool permit with used commuter train tickets. A person who rides the commuter train takes a car off the road just as much as a person who carpools. If used train tickets (for longer trips) could be credit for a carpool permit, this would encourage people to take the train "most days" but still use their car when it's called for. You could allow only redemption of your own ticket (such as a monthly pass) or any ticket, in which case a market would develop with people paying transit riders for their ticket stubs. This would effectively mean the solo drivers would subsidize the transit riders, even making their trips free. Which is part of what we want to have happen here.  read more »

San Jose Bike Route Airport to Downtown

Pardon the local entry boring to those outside this valley.

San Jose is seeking something "distinctive" for the airport remodel. Let me suggest something I have not seen anywhere else, something that would say something about the area.

San Jose has a bike trail that, except for a short gap, runs along the Guadalupe River from the airport terminals to almost highway 280. The part along Airport Blvd is unpaved, the rest is paved and landscaped. Step one would be to complete this trail and pave the unpaved part. Until the gap can be filled in, create some clearly marked bike lanes. Also do a lane on San Carlos, Park or San Fernando to lead to the convention center and downtown hotels.

Next: Franchise or subsidize specialty one-way bike and electric scooter rentals at both ends. Have regular bikes with towable trailers or trikes, and have electric powered bikes and scooters (again with luggage capacity) for those unwilling to get in some exercise. Make the rental cheap, like a few dollars each way.

This is worth doing just for the polution it would avoid with all those folks taking cabs. (Let's face it, people are not using the shuttle to the light rail much.) It would actually be faster in may cases than either of those methods, especially during rush hour. It would expose the visitor to something other than the highway trip. With San Jose's weather, it could operate well most of the year.  read more »

Eyes in the back of your head

Reading this NYT article about radar to cover car blind spots, which describes a system that will trigger lights in the rearview-mirror when cars are in the blind-spot, reminded me of an old idea I had some time ago I called “Eyes in the back of your head.”

The idea would be to wear a special collar while driving. This collar would contain small electrodes that could lightly stimulate the skin on the back of the neck. Perhaps just one row, but ideally a small 2-D image should be possible.

This would be connected to a camera, radar or sonar system pointing back from the vehicle. It would map where other vehicles are, and turn that into an image on the back of the neck.

Thus, as a car came up behind you and passed you, it would feel like something brushing the back of your neck on one side.

I was inspired to this by reading about a system for the blind that mapped a video camera image onto a 2000 pixel electrode map on the stomach. It was found that over time, the nerves would retrain and a sort of limited vision could develop. Might this have application in driving, or perhaps combat?  read more »

Advance scout robot for trains

Another transportion item, because last night the train I was on hit a car stalled on the tracks (the occupant is OK, though was hit by the car when the train bashed it.)

Since trains do hit things, why aren't solutions to this more common in our data network world? A laser detector over the grade crossings would be simple enough.

At dinner, my friend Kurth Reynolds made a suggestion that I have improved. How about a small robot, equipped with camera and other sensors, which travels far enough in front of the train that if it sees a problem on the track, can send a signal back to the train in time to stop it. Trains take a while to stop, which is one of the reasons they can't do anything when they see a car or person ahead on the tracks.

You can't be too far ahead or you enter the "space" of the earlier train on the track, though during any tight conflicts you can of course give up this "foresight" and bear through (or slow down.)

If you have a human driving the train, you can show them video of what's ahead of the robot and give them time for a decision. Some decisions (Robot hits something or derails) would be automatic. Of course the robot might hit the car stalled on the tracks (though it can stop much, much faster than a train) but do far less damage.

The robot would be tall enough to go over the suicides who are "sleeping" on the track, but light enough so a car hit by it would survive.

Simpler for shorter runs like commuter trains would just be cameras along the track beaming to the oncoming trains. The engineer could be seeing a mile ahead at all times. Hey, if x10 can sell 2 broadcasting video cameras for $80 (WARNING: Don't buy from their web site, you will be spammed to death) I bet this can be made affordable.

This is important because some people don't think we should have rail with grade crossings. Without grade crossings, rail becomes vastly more expensive.

Some updates five years later: Some have worried the robot could hit workers or cars. Today, we are more comfortable we can build robots which would use LIDAR and never hit anything that wasn't running onto the track. The robots would also be light and perhaps have airbags to soften the blow against something rushing onto the track. When coming to a grade crossing, the robot would actually stop at the crossing and wait for the guard to come down (for the train, if the path is clear) and continue to monitor the crossing and report if something stops in it. Then it would speed up again and start going down the track to assure it is far enough ahead of the train.

Virtual Right-of-way

I'm going to write more in the future about how transportation is not making using technology. Let me start with streetcars and the bus.

People use transit a lot more if it is able to beat the car, or at least keep pace with it. Thus we spend a lot of money on dedicated right-of-way for subways, trains and streetcars.

But this is really inefficient. The dedicated right-of-way sits empty 95% of the time. It does nothing so that a train can pass over it every 10 minutes (or more.)

Imagine a system where street cars and electric bus lines run on regular city streets. But it's illegal to drive in front of the car or bus in its special lane. It's OK to drive behind it, but if the car or bus ever has to hit the brakes because you're in front of it, it snaps a picture of the plate, and your car is sent a ticket for $200 for blocking the lane.

The main downside I see to this is the risk of people pulling dangerous stunts to get out of the lane, trying to merge into heavy traffic in the next lane to avoid the fact ticket when they see a bus coming up behind them. The system would have to be tweaked and tested to avoid that, with bigger tickets for making an unsafe lane change etc.

Large carpools (4 or more) might also be allowed in the lane, private busses, shared taxis and so on. Of course, once the streetcar went past, people would zoom behind it to follow its speedy course. But that's good. It's far more efficient than dedicated right-of-way, but gets near the speed.

Traffic signals would of course have to be coordinated with this, stops somewhat limited and there would probably remain some dedicated right-of-way in certain areas. We won't tear out our subways to make this happen.

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